LETTER | Throughout history till the 20th century, child marriages especially involving girls were common in most parts of the world. With the average life expectancy being only 40 to 45 years of age, child marriages was the faster way to start a family to reproduce.
Economic and security problems then became the dominating factor that forced parents to marry off their young girls. Instances of poverty, rape, and kidnapping of unmarried girls by invaders and militants pushed society to marry off their daughters at an earlier age for a male protection and shelter.
The practice of child marriage then took a shift ever after the industrial revolution after many countries supporting child marriage suffered serious economic losses due to the absence of an educated female workforce in the country. Child marriages were also established as affecting a young female child’s health as human science progressed over time. This dual revolution hence retired the practice of child marriage to the wilderness.
Yet, it lingers on at the fringes of our society and resurfaces once in a while to the wrath of netizens, leaving some religious teachers with an “online black eye” after debating on the legal age of marriage in Malaysia.
The reason to set the legal age of marriage at 18 for Malaysia is not based on puberty or the ability to consent to sex which is 16 years old. The determination of the minimum age is strongly based on the relationship between empowerment of girls and education as a protection mechanism.
The recent suggestion to increase the minimum age to 18 is an important lifeline as it provides an opportunity for girls to attain a full formal education until SPM before entering the world of marriage. This state- protected care and independence is especially important to liberate girls who are at risk to escape the push factors of child marriage.
But the decision is also seen as simplistic, especially in the context of quality education as a protection mechanism in Malaysia that is aspiring to be a developed nation. The big issue here is that education in Malaysia is only compulsory until primary level, outdated in quality and becomes a privilege after that.
The objective to protect vulnerable girls by keeping them at school with quality education until the age of 18 becomes redundant with the risk of early marriage or labour.
Our policy on right to education is limited to merely basic education to read, write and count. Compulsory education by law is also limited until primary school. After the primary school, the children’s education is no longer protected by law and loaded with bureaucracy and lack of care.
As a result, there are thousands of children in Malaysia especially girls, living in poverty, of broken parentage, a lack of identity documents and even poor logistics and neighbourhoods, unable to attend secondary school or complete it. The limitation and insignificant child education standards in Malaysia directly affect girls who are the first to fall through the cracks and forced into ultra-vulnerability.
A child is left helpless when the right to secondary education is not protected by law and their social security and welfare ignored. As they face society, poverty and family all by themselves, that increases their vulnerability. Child marriage slowly becomes an option once hardship and family resilience cracks under pressure and they either work illegally in a vulnerable environment or get married off to an older man for security.
It is important to understand that child marriages are different from rape or sexual harassments as it happens with the consent of the parents and the child involving cultural and legal processes. The hardship of life, dangers of society, bureaucracy, corruption and unstable jobs are among the push factors behind child marriage.
Some migrant children even think early marriage is better than being arrested, charged in court and sent into detention due to the lack of documents by their parents. Child marriage is rampant among the poor families living in the fringes of our society as they are often pushed into it due to economy and insecurity.
So will the government’s efforts to fix the marriage age at 18 resolve child marriage when the government can’t protect these children, especially girls, from the shackles of poverty and insecurity? What’s the point of arresting the desperate parents handicapped by lack of government help or “rescuing” the married child after the damage is done.
Child marriages cannot be eradicated by mere law and order without a governmental intervention into the root causes of poverty, insecurity, bureaucracy and lack of care.
To eradicate child marriage and labour, Malaysia must move away from treating education as a privilege and make it a fundamental right for all children regardless of citizenship. Therefore, compulsory education must be increased from primary school to include a full secondary education until SPM.
The government must also provide social security protection for all children living in poverty and from harsh social conditions and neighbourhoods to ensure students don’t fall through the cracks. This effort is paramount to address the unequal playing field between children from rural and urban backgrounds, the former who are the most vulnerable to child marriage.
The government must also conduct reforms to the standard of education to make the education is not just compulsory but significant. Subjects like emotional and social intelligence, design thinking, social financial literacy and learning to learn must cloth the existing education syllabus for education to be significant to combat the child marriage.
There are still cases of children being exploited, begging, forced to work illegally or get married at a young age because of the broken link between the right to education and the bureaucracy, poverty, lack of legal documentation of parents in Malaysia as well as the lack of protection.
A former secretary-general of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon, once famously said, “Expanding access to primary and secondary education can delay, and even prevent child marriages. The resurfacing of child marriage is just another symptom that arises from the growing wealth and educational gap in Malaysia. It’s a question of political will and openness to the rights base and innovative approach to education that eradicated child marriages in many Western countries.”
It’s time to address the root causes and invest in compulsory significant education for our children who are living on the fringes of our society and not just on buildings and another national car. In terms of return on investment, the profit is that we will have a developed nation.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.